NASA Might Send a Flying Drone to Mars Alongside New Rover
The successor to previous Mars rovers like Curiosity and Opportunity is launching in just a couple years (although those older rovers will still be operational), and the newcomer might stow along a flying colleague.
NASA has been working on a potential unmanned arial vehicle (UAV) or drone which could patrol Mars and maneuver around more easily than the grounded rovers that currently populate the Red Planet. And it appears that these plans have been going well, because a NASA representative recently explained that a drone which could navigate in Mars' thin atmosphere is being tested.
If all goes well, it might be launched to Mars alongside the Mars 2020 rover to take further photos and analyses.
As of now, the drone has completed 86 minutes of test flights inside a controlled chamber which replicated the decreased atmospheric pressure of Mars, which is about one percent of what's found on Earth. The director of NASA's robotic Mars exploration program, Jim Watzin, said the following at a recent presentation to a panel of scientists at the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group, according to Spaceflight Now:
Of course, it wouldn't be flying the entire time if it does reach Mars. At 4 pounds (1.81 kilograms) in Earth's gravity, it's capable of flight for 90 seconds to 2 minutes at heights of up to 1,000 feet (304 meters), recharging with solar panels in between flights.
So it won't reach nearly as high as their Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter up in the planet's atmosphere, but it'll have a unique vantage point nonetheless.
NASA has yet to really experiment with sending drones to other planets, moons or dwarf planets, but they have toyed with the idea on several occasions. In particular, they're working with a group which has designed a drone capable of flying on Saturn's largest moon Titan, in the hopes of finding alien life or some other discovery on a potentially habitable moon.
But no such thing has launched yet, and most of their data comes from the aging Reconnaissance Orbiter and their rovers. The Mars 2020 rover, advanced as it is, could likely use the help if the drone is deemed worthy of the flight.